May 262015
 

tweet-BDSM-subversive-2I’m tired of the “everything is awesome” school of uncritical sex positivity.

More than uncritical, sex positivity seems to actively discourage examination by dismissing any analysis that isn’t positive or neutral (beyond Your Kink Is Not My Kink) as kink-shaming or any number of other reductive dismissals that preclude critical examination or discussion.

Potential counterpoints are addressed by building straw men easily dismissed as vanilla or prudish, or as ignorant, uninformed, or inexperienced. Actual counterpoints are automatically deemed kink shaming or censorship.

If criticism is already assumed as coming from some position on a sliding scale of ignorance/inexperience to dislike/disgust, then no criticism is valid.

If “sex positive” precludes criticism, I am not sex positive.

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Melissa A. Fabello’s piece, “3 Reasons Why Sex-Positivity without Critical Analysis Is Harmful,” speaks more eloquently than I can.

She draws on Allena Gabosh’s 2008 Southplains Leatherfest keynote address, Gabosh defines sex positive as “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation.” Fabello boils sex positivity down to “not making moral judgments, respecting everyone’s personal preferences, and encouraging people to be active agents in discovering what does (and doesn’t) make them tick.”

I’m on board with all of that, but, like Fabello, when sex positivity assumes that all choices are “automatically liberating” and “everything is revolutionarily enlightened” without considering the social structures from which those choices emerge or the implications of choices on existing/future structures, then I need to take a step back.

Fabello advocates sex positivity coupled with critical analysis in three areas:

  1. The role of socialization and social structures in our preferences and choices (including those available).
  2. The uneasy relationship between individual empowerment and collective oppression, along with recognition that what is liberating to one may contribute to the oppression of many.
  3. The new status quo of sexual liberation, one that looks a lot like repackaged sexism.

The most important thing Fabello says is this: “These issues aren’t black-and-white. They’re not easy. They’re not one-size-fits-all. They deserve a conversation.”

If sex positivity is black and white, and if a sex positive approach precludes these conversations, then I am not sex positive. Perhaps sex critical is the more appropriate label for my thinking?

(more on this later in another exciting installment of me figuring out what the fuck I think about things)

 

fuck-this-everything-is-not-awesomePost published courtesy of my grumpy inner feminist, who wants to remind you:

Everything is not awesome!
and also…maybe nothing should be off limits to criticism, and maybe criticism =/= kink-shaming… and maybe we’re individuals, but also, products and producers of culture… and maybe agency and autonomy are a bit more complicated than we think they are…

 

  13 Responses to “I am not sex positive”

  1. “It’s not easy”

    Hell yes to this, and bloody good post. I think I’d pretty generally say I’m ‘sex positive’, although more recently I’ve been questioning what this really means, because no, I’m not automatically positive of anything sexual, and I’m probably becoming much more aware of the context within which we have our fantasies and play and all that stuff. I think a lot of sex positivity has been simplified for relatively mainstream audiences, and most people I know who are sex positive (or seen as such) are more realistically sex critical. And I think I’m basically using ‘sex critical’ as a shorthand for ‘thoughtful and questioning’ here.

    “Actual counterpoints are automatically deemed kink shaming or censorship.”

    Yes argh and this hacks me off so much too. While some things genuinely are kink-shaming or censorious, to imply that any kind of criticism of something sexual naturally has to fall into one of these camps is totally ridiculous. For example: there’s a UK based organisation that fights censorship, with which I have a fair degree of… umm… beef. They’re very anti-feminist, because they see any kind of feminist critique of porn as a ‘moral crusade’ that is on a ‘slippery slope’ towards censorship. However, critical analysis of fantasies/porn/etc is utterly vital for any kind of progress (not to mention interesting art and sex). Otherwise it’s just a bunch of people having a big party and shouting ‘tits!’ ‘spanking!’ ‘bum stuff!’ to tumultuous and unquestioning applause.

    • I think a lot of sex positivity has been simplified for relatively mainstream audiences,

      I think you’re right on this, and I’m glad for it — it’s about damn time people realize that sex isn’t shameful or dirty, and that there’s a brilliant diversity of preferences, partners, and practices out there, and that consent is so-fucking-important (and can’t be stressed enough).

      and most people I know who are sex positive (or seen as such) are more realistically sex critical. And I think I’m basically using ‘sex critical’ as a shorthand for ‘thoughtful and questioning’ here.

      Agreed. I’ve been thinking on this and I hate that self-identification as one thing or another runs the risk of being associated with positions you might not necessarily agree with. I guess I just hit the wall recently with seeing too many examples of sex positivity being used as some sort of armor against self-examination (or perhaps as a weapon against cultural critique).

      And also, on porn, it’s because I don’t claim to have all the answers (and don’t claim to have figured out my positions) that I appreciate thoughtful examination from those with complex positions of their own. While I’ve been skeptical of “feminist porn” as a general label (because of some using the term less-than-ethically), and while I have reservations about certain types of porn, one of my absolute favorite articles is one I believe you tweeted: Pandora Blake’s “Can Porn Empower Women?” on Medium. It was fucking brilliant — it’s the sort of self/media/movement examination I wish there were more of.

  2. I’ve been trying to work out what exactly makes me so cranky about this post, and I think I know.

    It’s this annoying notion that the idea is ‘repackaged sexism/oppression’, i’ve been noticing this trend across many classically liberal strong points. Example of related liberal strong point that is now receiving similar scrutiny – ‘colour blindness toward race’ – is attacked because, damnit, some people want to be treated differently because they are of a different ethnicity (ditto this latest article i’ve seen about bringing back racial segregation in classrooms).

    The same thing in sex positivity, as mentioned in the article, this idea that people are socialized into wanting to avoid being seen as ‘sex negative’, or that in pornography that certain pornography should be judged because it carries certain political weight over other acts.

    No no no. This is self cannibalizing behaviour by otherwise left leaning scholars, this is the level scrutiny that makes good ideas and behaviours now look bad because you started going down the ‘what if’ path and over thinking things.

    Does Sex Positivity need scrutiny, no, it comes with safe guards, the emphasis on consensual sex is absolutely key to protecting people.

    Would it benefit from focusing on discussing more about what it means to give consent and the ways consent can be compromised? Yes. Absolutely. It could focus in on pride in one’s own sexual preference, that you should never feel socially coerced and that being aware of your own desires and limits is a sex positive thing in and of itself. Self awareness of your desires and limits is sexy and good.

    But there is still room in such an awareness campaign for Dan Savage style ‘GGG’ (Good Giving Game) acts of sexual charity or experimentation, but that such things are done by individuals who have an awareness of themselves beneath the praxis of sex positivity and do not come from a place of ‘oppression’.

    Oh and the other thing that bothers me; critiques of porn, especially by feminists as mentioned by GotN.
    No. Ugh.

    [quote]Otherwise it’s just a bunch of people having a big party and shouting ‘tits!’ ‘spanking!’ ‘bum stuff!’ to tumultuous and unquestioning applause.[/quote]

    That sounds great to me. There is no ‘porn progress’, unless by which you mean closing the wage gap in porn by paying the male porn stars the same as the female porn stars.

    The market should decide what porn lives, and what porn fails. If organic, home grown porn like ‘Make Love Not Porn’ does well with it’s sales model and content – great. If Bang Bus 15, or Anal Invaders 97 does well. Great. Porn caters to deep seated desires of the individual, it’s apolitical, it caters to the id, to the Dionysian aspects of ourselves. We don’t need a critical analysis because the only way to change porn would be to change the desires of people.

    The impossible physiology of some wood block carving porn, or even of Tijuana bibles was not creating desire from nothing, but just appealing to the need for people to feel titillated. People want to jack off (and I use this term inclusively, substitute ‘jill off’ if you feel the need to) to fantasies – because they are always going to depict situations the viewer will likely never find themselves in no matter how realistic the porn (which is to say that most people will never fuck Sasha Grey or James Deen, or if you jump over to Make Love Not Porn, Violet and Rye) and so both might as well be fantasies.

    Of course the exception to this argument is self-made/home made porn, but again under the aegis of Sex Positivity, if you’re both consenting, willing, self-aware individuals, there should be no problem with that. But ultimately now you’re still reliving a moment in media captured memory which might as well be fantasy.

    • No no no. This is self cannibalizing behaviour by otherwise left leaning scholars, this is the level scrutiny that makes good ideas and behaviours now look bad because you started going down the ‘what if’ path and over thinking things.

      First, examining the origins and implications of cultural beliefs, values, and behaviors is how we got to this point. If, collectively, we had never examined attitudes about sex, we wouldn’t be where we are now (which is a hell of a lot better place than we were a decade ago, or a decade before that). Second, not everyone agrees on what is “good,” and even if we did, there are lots of mostly good ideas and movements that have unwanted effects. I wouldn’t advocate scrapping movements because they aren’t perfect — we can revise them to make them better.

      Does Sex Positivity need scrutiny, no, it comes with safe guards, the emphasis on consensual sex is absolutely key to protecting people.

      Understanding and respecting consent is key to protecting people from consent violations (and ensuring people don’t violate others consent). However, emphasis on consent doesn’t address cultural factors or effects. Sex can be completely consensual, but still draw from and reinforce sexism, racism, ableism… all the isms.

      There is no ‘porn progress’, unless by which you mean closing the wage gap in porn by paying the male porn stars the same as the female porn stars. The market should decide what porn lives, and what porn fails.

      You say the market should decide, but in the sentence immediately before it, you suggest the porn industry should close the wage gap between male and female performers. Closing a wage gap isn’t letting the market decide — the two ideas don’t cohere. Unknowingly, you’ve provided an argument for why the market shouldn’t decide, because the bottom line is that the market isn’t fair. Since it’s governed by regulations, it’s not really free, either, nor has it, historically, made decisions that are in the best interest of those involved (which is why we have regulation — an imperfect system in itself, but still a system we value to some degree).

      (To be absolutely clear, my post on sex positivity is not a call for regulation or government intervention. It’s a call to examine sex positivity (and sex, and desire, and porn, etc.) and what it means. Examination and analysis =/= calls for regulation or censorship.)

      Back to your point. Luckily, criticism isn’t a hindrance to letting the market decide what media is produced and consumed, and in fact, it can help consumers make more informed choices (or help consumers understand potential motivations and effects of their choices, if they’re interested).

      Porn caters to deep seated desires of the individual, it’s apolitical, it caters to the id, to the Dionysian aspects of ourselves.

      Depends on what you mean by “deep seated desires,” and whether the desires you reference are biological or cultural. If you mean desire to jerk off and desire to fuck, then sure — those are unarguably biological desires/urges. But the way porn speaks to those desires is cultural. Pornography that depicts a man aroused/humiliated by being “made” to wear women’s clothes and makeup, and being “forced” to embody a female stereotype by performing “women’s behaviors” while being called a dirty slut isn’t drawing on a biological desire. It draws on cultural norms and attitudes. (arousal = biological; forced feminization as arousing = cultural) And sure, those desires can be “deep seated,” but they’re still cultural, and for that reason, they’re worth examination.

      If that example doesn’t work for you, look at the way pubic hair grooming, preference, and representation in pornography has changed in the past couple of decades. That’s all due to cultural shifts, not biological ones. So, sure, wanting to jerk off is biological, but preferring to jerk off to a person with/out pubic hair is a culturally influenced desire.

      And porn is about as far from apolitical as you can get — it’s part of political discussions, it’s regulated by governments, and it both reflects and subverts cultural norms. It’s super political.

      We don’t need a critical analysis because the only way to change porn would be to change the desires of people.

      But people’s desires have changed and so has porn (and both will continue to change). My position is that all of it — porn, sex positivity, BDSM, identity, sexuality — is worth paying attention to because it shapes and is shaped by our desires (which shape and are shaped by culture).

  3. I have to be honest. I didn’t understand most of this post. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been missing out on whatever it is that’s caused this discussion (articles/tweets/etc) or because I only “talk pretty and not smart,” (no really, I don’t talk smart!), or because things are conflated here.

    In my world and mind, sex-positivity does not preclude scrutiny, cultural check-ins/sensitivity or a greater understanding of oneself and how you might fit in to it.

    Sex positivity is the lens through which you see human sexual expression as it [finally] departs from a trauma-based, pathologized model which has long stated that there is a narrowly defined prescription for “healthy sexuality”: man/woman/tender/monogamous/committed. Sex positivity posits that if the participants have agency (as they know it within whatever social construct they reside) and have given consent then it falls within “healthy” boundaries. I’m on board with that.

    I don’t think it means that we shouldn’t be critical of what informs us to have those needs, but where do we draw the line? Does that mean that I’m somehow falling short if I fall into a trap of cultural mores or sexism if it gets me off and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it? I’m just not sure I understand how sex positivity is being highlighted as a necessarily restrictive term. Who’s saying it’s this “everything is awesome” thing?

    It’s nothing short of liberating to the person who thought there was something shamefully, horribly wrong with them because they need something so outside the mainstream they contemplated death or lived a complete lie. The lens of sex positivity as I see it allows an individual to accept their cravings/needs/desires – the where and why of it is important information and maybe what you’re getting at here – but the immediate foundational questions can be pondered in the mean time, not necessarily before a sexual actualization that brings true fulfillment and joy to a person.

    Am I making sense with my confusion? It all boils down to my belief that sex positivity includes a critical eye and is culturally sensitive as necessary to that individual. I’d like to know more about who’s saying it means everything is awesome all the time. xx Hy

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Hy — it absolutely makes sense.

      To be clear on two things:

      1) Nothing immediate prompted my post — I’ve been thinking about sex positivity specifically since 2013 UK rape porn debates in anticipation of legislation increasing censorship. Since that time, I’ve read and engaged in conversations where I’ve observed (and/or recieved) a variety of dismissive responses to criticism — charges of “kink shaming” is just one of them.

      2) The terminology — the “everything is awesome” school of sex positivity — is my own. Essentially, that’s what YKINMK, BYKIOK (Your Kink is Not My Kink, But Your Kink is Ok) coupled with adherence to tenents of sex positivity and cautions against kink/sex shaming amount to: everything is okay.

      Theoretically, that equation doesn’t preclude critique, but in practice it’s often used to do just that. If “all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy,” and I critique a sexual activity (generally) that you enjoy (personally), it’s damn near impossible to avoid unintentionally shaming you (or, perhaps making you feel shame if you read my critique). So, I either go forward and critique (and possibly draw kink shaming accusations and/or actually kink shame), or I don’t critique.

      As for what you wrote regarding eschewing pathologization of individual sexuality and sexual expression and embracing liberation, consent, and agency, I enthusiastically agree. That’s what (I believe) sex positivity was intended to do, and I’m all for all of it. However, in practice, I think it serves to discourage discussion of potential consequences and effects beyond the individual and her/his/eirs sexual expression/fulfillment.

      And that’s where (I think) your and my responses to sex positivity differ — in considering larger effects of individuals’ sexual expression. An individual’s sexual expression not only draws from culture, but also affects culture. What’s good and liberating and healthy for one person may contribute to systems that aren’t good for everyone.

      I’m actually not all that concerned with whether or not individuals self-examine. For the most part, I don’t think people should feel obligated to engage in it. If there’s enthusiastic consent and you’re not hurting anyone, fuck on and be happy.

      What I do think is necessary is some examination of how our individual sexual expressions might contribute to cultural attitudes about (and behaviors towards) marginalized populations (women, racial minorities, queer and trans* people, etc). I’m interested in how individual sexual expression contributes to economies (of monetary and other forms of capital) where certain things are valued over others, where some people/identities have unequal power over others… all of that.

      Also, since you asked about who is saying what, if you’re interested, here are a few links. They aren’t necessarily explicit in addressing sex-positivity the same way I have, but they do address and respond to kink/sex shaming, cultural criticism, and the tension between individual expression and larger effects.

      • Thank you for this. It’s a welcome break from the usual feminist sex-negativity.
        From it’s title, I expected something far less positive.

  4. I salute the idea of examining anything critically — it doesn’t seem to me to be the case that there is anything “perfect” anywhere that really should not be critically analyzed. (That even includes criticism itself, as in knee-jerk criticism of patriarchy — but that is a different topic.)

    My own personal “existential” problem with BDSM was its apparent self-contradiction: in order to feel good, BDSM eroticism has to look bad. Caning is usually (historically, stereotypically) a punishment, used to show displeasure at a ‘crime’ committed by someone (cf. traditional Muslim countries); but in BDSM contexts, it is what the submissive craves/needs. Now, if caning had never been considered as a punishment — if it had been always and only seen as some kind of endorphine-releasing massage, for instance — then I imagine it would never have been sexualized in a BDSM context (which is ultimately about playing with images of power and powerlessness).

    So an important part of BDSM is about playing with fire: about actually taking situations that should express negative feelings and somehow make them expressions of good feelings (caning => loving). Now, of course every kink is different and people will certainly vary as to the degree of ‘precision’ they want in the appearance of evil in BDSM: should the dominant just cane the submissive, or also verbally abuse him? Should there be breaks of vanilla relations (‘reconnecting’), or should it be 24/7? This is sometimes described as a softcore vs. hardcore continuum, but I wonder if it doesn’t involve playing with the ideal that BDSM becomes ‘better’ if it looks ‘more evil’.

    And why should it be? Why should there be a desire for something to look ‘worse’ in order to feel ‘better’? Is it like the desire for the drug to have higher and higher purity levels so that the initial feel-good effect can still be felt, or is it something else? More importantly (at least to me), does it hint at some sort of deep intrinsic ‘brokenness’ in BDSM? Is there something ‘bad’ about it that we are perhaps missing by concentrating on its good side (consenting adults, endorphine levels, growth and trust, etc.?)

    • “BDSM context (which is ultimately about playing with images of power and powerlessness).”

      This is D/s-centric. To pure (100%) sadists like me there isn’t even a fragment of the powerslide within my BDSM, I am entirely uninterested in having or exercising power. I want to cause and watch pain and sensation. There are pure bondage aficionados, to whom things are pretty much the same as for me. It is the bondage, not the position of power.

      I am so, so, so unbelievably tired of D/s-centrism. It’s so offensive. Please start to acknowledge again that D/s isn’t the centre of the BDSM-universe.

  5. I meant to add (but pressed the submit comment button too quickly): typically BDSM is presented in a sex-positive light because it is too easy to criticise in a (stereo)typical way (‘perversion!’ ‘the dominant is a sadist who simply hates the submissive!’ ‘the submissive is a damaged individual who needs help!’). To detract from this traditional viewpoint, sex-positivism stresses/reinforces ‘good’ aspects and downplays ‘bad’ ones (in a humorous reversal of what is sexy in BDSM); and so critical discussion becomes tantamount to yielding to the traditional, dominant-as-mustache-twirling-sadist, submissive-as-poor-abuse-victim perspective. The sex positive perspective makes this discussion more difficult than it should be.

  6. Hello :)

    I’ve been reading your blog for about a year now – I discovered it when I first started switching and binge-read pretty much the whole thing over a few months – and am totally thrilled by the combination of kink and feminism and awesome you post here. As a new-ish d-type, I also found your play write-ups really *really* helpful for inspiration and navigating all the new and exciting head-space that comes with these things. I’m now 7 months into a relationship with the most wonderful boy and am immensely grateful I found blogs like yours at just the moment I needed them.

    Anyway, fangirling aside: I <3 this post in particular. I'm an academic who works on gender and sexualities in pop culture and these are precisely the kinds of interventions that provide a space for more complex discussion about sexualities. On the off chance that you weren't aware of it, I just wanted to link you to Lisa Downing's blog – Sex Critical – named for the approach she coined that many sexualities researchers now identify as the one they (we) take: http://www.sexcritical.co.uk/2012/07/27/what-is-sex-critical-and-why-should-we-care-about-it/

    • I’m now 7 months into a relationship with the most wonderful boy and am immensely grateful I found blogs like yours at just the moment I needed them.

      Congratulations on the relationship! I’m glad this has been helpful, or at least engaging, (or entertaining?) — thank you for saying so. :)

      I’m an academic who works on gender and sexualities in pop culture and these are precisely the kinds of interventions that provide a space for more complex discussion about sexualities.

      An academic, eh? ;) I’ve heard a few academics use BDSM/sex/culture/gender blogs as vacation spots when they’re away from the ivory tower. :)

      Personally, I’m just now pulling my head out of the theory and sticking it into the real world. The lack of nuance and good logic in some of the discussions drives me fucking nuts, particularly as someone who is still articulating her own position somewhere between second and third wave feminism (and all of the shades of in-between, outside, and around). And then there’s the difficulty of conversations in some blog communities (if that’s a thing) where people have already made up their minds (forgive me, but Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle comes to mind… not that I’m immune). Anyway, yes — “interventions that provide a space for more complex discussion about sexualities” — more of those, please. :)

      I just wanted to link you to Lisa Downing’s blog – Sex Critical – named for the approach she coined that many sexualities researchers now identify as the one they (we) take: What is “Sex Critical” and why should we care about it?

      Thank you! Yes, I’m familiar with Downing — I love that piece, and RadTransFem’s thoughtful post, too (though I’m not sure I’d endorse “sex-negative” as the label). I struggle with the labels — sex-critical, gender-critical (though I believe I am both?) — because they automatically mean things to people that they don’t really mean (or not intended to mean). It makes conversation difficult because it often means a priori dismissal.

      In any case, sorry for the long response, and thank you for saying hello!

  7. Why is your blog called dumb Domme? you’re obviously quite intelligent. A bit of irony, eh? Anyways I thought your stance of being “still articulating her own position somewhere between second and third wave feminism” was interesting. So you’re not one of those ‘down-with-the-patriarchy-men-are-the-root-of-all-evil’ tumblr-ites, I take it. Yet you seem just as concerned with what fantasies are depicted in porn meant for peoples private fantasies and consumption. I’m curious as to why you would want to “critique” a persons fantasies, even if they are very far out there.

    I myself have met women who confessed that they fantasized about being raped in real life. Not some kinky roleplay–actual rape. That’s pretty unconsensual; but thats what some people dream about, and want in their porn. Maybe one could argue that fantasies such as these acquiesce to “The Patriarchy” however obliquely defined. But they allow individuals possessed of fantasies such as these with an opportunity to revel in their desires in a safe way. Surely telling people that they cannot enjoy their deepest darkest fantasies in porn because it might reinforce gender roles or somehow set women back, is a callous and impersonal way of dealing with this very human tendency.

    Sometimes people have dreams of things that society does not smile upon. And I for one will not tell them to shut their mouth’s and fall into line. And I don’t think you would, either, based on some of your comments in this thread. Which is why I am so puzzled that you have described yourself as being somewhat sex critical. Let the people fap, I say.

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